GM strike, day 10: UAW signals move into round-the-clock talks

Detroit — The United Auto Workers implied Wednesday that union negotiators are prepared to bargain around the clock with General Motors Co., signaling that a tentative agreement could be coming soon.

UAW Vice President Terry Dittes, director of the union's GM department, sent a letter to local leaders on the 10th day of a national strike saying talks were in their final phase after the bargaining committee had worked for “countless hours” to reach an agreement.

"All unsettled proposals are now at the main table and have been presented to General Motors and we are awaiting their response,” Dittes wrote. “This back and forth will continue until negotiations are complete."

Sen. Bernie Sanders walks the picket line with United Auto Workers in front of General Motors' Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly on Wednesday.

GM spokesman David Barnas said the parties continue to talk and "our goal remains to reach an agreement that builds a stronger future for our employees and our business.” He declined to elaborate.

Talks intensified Wednesday morning with the subcommittee issues “largely negotiated,” according to a source familiar with the situation, as they awaited leadership approval. UAW negotiators, led by President Gary Jones, met their GM counterparts earlier in the day in "main table" discussions, the source said.

The automaker on Wednesday also took other steps to suggest the walkout may be nearing an end. In a letter to delivery companies charged with ferrying parts between suppliers and GM auto plants, GM told the firms to determine "how you are situated capacity wise with both trailer and driver capacity. Will you be able to pick up from where you left off or will you need time to get your drivers and loads in place?"

The letter, time-stamped at 8:44 a.m. Wednesday, is the first such communication to delivery drivers since GM canceled deliveries last week amid the strike by 46,000 UAW-GM members. A second notice to delivery companies issued around noon urged GM carriers to stage empty trailers at GM facilities that can be loaded whenever work resumes.

But the notices expressed caution: "Although we are not sure as to when the UAW strike will end, it is a good idea to start the conversation of preparedness," wrote Leslie Woods, customer logistics manager for GM Quality Carrier Management for Ryder System Inc. in Novi.

Negotiators worked on issues through the late evening Tuesday, but had yet to embark on traditional round-the-clock bargaining that generally heralds the final lap toward a tentative agreement until late in the day Wednesday.

The 20 UAW-GM subcommittees wrangle smaller points of the agreement except wages, health care, temporary workers, profit sharing agreements and product allocation. Approval of subcommittee tentative agreements by Dittes effectively increases the intensity of the "main table" negotiations between the union and GM to address those issues.

UAW members walk the picket line at the Detroit Hamtramck Assembly on Wednesday.

The strike is the UAW's longest against GM since 1970 and the first since the Great Recession and GM's federally induced bankruptcy in 2009. Strikers will start to feel the financial impact of the impasse this week, according to experts. Hourly employees received their paychecks from GM for the previous week's work on Friday.

Strike pay is $250 per week, but it won't be distributed until the 15th day of picketing. The starting wage for temporary production workers at GM is $15.78 per hour, which is about $630 per week.

But spirits remained high on the picket lines at Lake Orion Assembly plant on the tenth day of the strike. Curtis Rush, 58, a 35-year GM employee wore red for "Solidarity Wednesday" as he walked the picket line with other strikers.

“I am in it to win it,” he said. “I am looking to help out the temp workers."

The UAW Local 5960 union hall in Lake Orion was bustling on Wednesday. The local's 750 members floated in and out of the hall throughout the day to sign up for strike benefits, chat with other members and grab some of the free food that area restaurants keep providing in a sign of support.

“We are stronger than we have ever been before,” said Troy Henke, financial secretary for Local 5960. Community support and membership unity continues to fuel that strength. 

“People from all four corners of the plant that normally wouldn’t have the opportunity to speak to each other” are talking and supporting each other, Local 5960 Vice President Gerald Lang said.

Strikers are willing to picket for as long as necessary to get the contract they feel they deserve. Leaders say they "will last one day longer than GM" because, Lang said, “we’ve got to.”

Experts have differing estimates on how much the strike is costing GM. The East Lansing-based Anderson Economic Group estimated the first week would result in losses of about $25 million total. Wall Street analysts forecast it would cost $50 million or more per day. 

The strike has started to affect GM facilities in Ohio and Ontario not represented by the UAW. All told more than 3,200 GM workers represented by other unions have been laid off. On Monday, the automaker notified 525 employees at its DMax Ltd. plant in Moraine, Ohio, that they were temporarily laid off. The plant would not be producing engines for the GMC and Chevrolet pickups there during the strike at UAW-represented GM plants.

Meanwhile, Democratic presidential hopefuls have been hitting picket lines across the U.S. to show their support for UAW members. Former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke is expected to visit Lordstown in northeast Ohio where the idled Lordstown Assembly Plant is located.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders joined the picket line outside the Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly plant Wednesday morning before delivering brief remarks to picketers and those gathered to hear him speak.

"The working people of this country are not looking sympathetically today to General Motors," Sanders said, highlighting that GM was bailed out by the federal government and that it paid CEO Mary Barra nearly $22 million in total compensation last year. "What the workers here are saying, and the workers all over America are saying, is enough is enough."

Twitter: @bykaleahall, @Ian_Thibodeau